The Secret Life of Introvert Connectors


Angela Gunder and Jessica Knott

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in·tro·vert /ˈintrəˌvərt/ noun

  1. a shy, reticent person.
  2. a person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things.

con·nect·or /kəˈnektər/ noun

  1. a thing that links two or more things together.
  2. a device for keeping two parts of an electric circuit in contact.
  3. a short road or highway that connects two longer roads or highways.

Origin stories are funny things – often when we take a moment to reflect on how we arrived at a certain summit in our lives, we find a circuitous path that may be shocking to even us that we were ever able to walk it.  

As your OLC Innovate 2018 Conference Co-Chair Emerita, we’ve spent much time brokering meaningful connections between colleagues, and carving new channels for initiatives and opportunities for engagement.  We’ve done it (and luckily, continue to get to do it) with genuine passion and joy. And yet, when we share with folks that the two of us are introverts to the bone, we are often met with consternation and protests.  How is it possible that two gregarious and earnest colleagues might lead this double-life as introvert connectors?

Let’s break this revelation down with a little etymology exploration.  The term introvert takes its roots from the Latin “intro-” and “-vert” which most closely translate to “inward” and “turning” respectively.  Typically, when folks think of introverts, they think of shy and reclusive individuals that are scared of crowds and attention.  Within human personality theory, introverts are classified as individuals who lose energy from interactions with others. This energy is replenished by solitude and time away from external stimulation.  Conversely, extroverts gain their energy from crowds and external stimuli, thriving in environments with people and attention. The terms introvert and extrovert can also be used as transitive verbs, delineating between the act of concentrating on oneself, or oppositely focusing on the outside world.

There are myriad examples of the term connector in use – from transportation to circuits to dots, we use connector metaphors regularly to describe the world around us.  Malcolm Gladwell famously described connectors in The Tipping Point as one of three personas holding the power to spread social epidemics (Gladwell, p. 33).  If you imagine a network of people as a constellation, connectors are not only bright stars, but ones from which linkages to other stars emanate.  They are adept at not only keeping a wide network of contacts, but in calling forth contacts to match them with new people, initiatives and ideas. Gladwell describes them as “people with a special gift for bringing the world together.”

Reflecting on these labels shines a light on the fact that they are not binary truths, but rather, theories of personality.  For instance, the term ambivert classically describes a person who is neither an introvert or an extrovert.  We, however, like to think of it as a broader classification of all of the social interactions that occur, with each interaction plotted on a line with introversion and extroversion at the two poles.  Ambiverts comfortably move along the entire spectrum of introversion and extroversion, with that movement controlled by themselves at times, and at other times by others who push or pull them along the spectrum.  Think of those times that you “stepped up to the plate” or that you were moved out of your comfort zone. Ambiversion is a truer indication of how we might describe our interactions en masse rather than lumping them into one discrete category.  And the binary logic of “you’re either THIS or THAT” just doesn’t hold up in the real world.

Similarly, the way that connectors are described quite often carries stereotypes of “social butterflies” and “people person(s)” – individuals who thrive in environments where they can network and collaborate.  In actuality, having the ability to meet people and make connections does not necessarily mean that a person is driven by the social aspect of connection. Erica Dhawan expanded on Gladwell’s definition of connectors by separating them into different groups – thinkers, enablers and executors. She describes thinkers as the people who explore and curate ideas, enablers as the individuals who build spaces for communities to grow, and executors as the people who tie people and resources together.  You may have read Gladwell’s definition of a connector and not resonated with it, but with Dhawan’s elaboration, does your answer change? Are you perhaps one of these other types of connectors – linking ideas or spaces or resources rather than people?

Cruising up to 30,000 feet, the view from above is that we still struggle under the weight of labels, both those that we assign ourselves and those given to us by our colleagues and friends.  These labels are not inherently harmful, but if they drive our actions, they can limit our propensity to connect, collaborate and meet our goals. Something that surprises almost everyone is to learn that the two of us are introverts who believe in connection and conversation. “But you’re so outgoing!” Yes, we are. But it’s also a challenge. We write this blog post as a reminder that just because you don’t see yourselves as extroverted, or feel like you have important things to say – you’re wrong. You do. And, in recognizing our shared commitment to collaboration and a culture of gratitude, we wanted to reach out with our story and this message. Behold: the secret life of introvert connectors!

Leadership, whether in conference settings or at your our own institutions is not about focusing on the same couple of stars in the constellation. For example, you can spot Orion and its major shape, but there is no Orion without the twinkle of the whole of the stars that create the experience. Conferences and other on-site professional development opportunities should unfold like a visit to the planetarium, the goals and outcomes of which differ for everyone. Maybe you’re really interested in the bright stars you admire regularly. Or maybe you’re more interested in how the universe links together, with stars and connections as the foundational building blocks. There is no right answer. Everyone seeking knowledge belongs, and we encourage you to draw the map that works for you while acknowledging the important role you play as individuals that build the whole.

One of the common themes we’ve heard in our conversations is the belief that admiration isn’t warranted, or that people think they have nothing to say. We want you to know that we feel that too. Here are a couple of questions: When people compliment you, do you believe it? Do you receive it? Or, do you find yourself opting out of the compliment and attributing the perceived glow to something or someone else? We’ve both been victims of this habit, and have started to act with intentionality when people praise us, and say “Thank you!” and “You’re welcome!” instead of deflecting.  Additionally, it may seem disingenuous to tout your wins without sounding like a brag-o-saurus. How do you share your accomplishments with others – and mitigate the feeling of “I don’t want to brag” with “I did an amazing thing, and I really want to share it with you?” And more broadly, you may be thinking “That all sounds great, but how do I actually do this?” Well, hold on to your pantaloons, because we have some tips:

Build a culture of gratitude around you. Jobs are hard, and education is no different. We’re called to teach and empower and that’s at once a heavy load and an incredible blessing. Look for the gratitude around you. Thank those who help you, tell those you admire that you admire them, and try to recognize all that you have to offer others. Conversely, don’t let yourself be overshadowed or diminished. Hold your space and find those who will help amplify your message.

Find conference or PD event planners and ask how you can help. Conferences, and professional development experiences in general, are a very heavy lift. The people working with the folks at OLC are often volunteers, and involved for the sole rewards that come from helping others. Don’t be afraid to ask how you can help. Sometimes the answer may be “I don’t know” but that’s also an opportunity. Try using a proposal format. “Hi, X, I love what the Innovation Lab is doing this year, and I wondered if you had any interest in some help formatting the handouts?” While the number of discounted registrations is finite, the desire for many voices and contributors is endless. If you don’t hear back from your query, try reaching out to the OLC conference staff. They’re great connectors and love to hear from you.

Stay in touch with folks in deeper ways. Some of you may have seen the #SquadGoalsNetwork hashtag, or may still be following the #OLCInnovate one after your conference experience. Try setting up Zoom calls, or starting some cross-institutional projects and initiatives with the people you met onsite. Travel funds are often limited, but don’t forget the power of face time (even if it’s on an iOS device and not breathing the same air). Keep the conversations going, make something together, or just meet to chat. Virtual happy hours are a fun and easy way (timezones pending) to keep the conference connections and conversations going. That’s the most important part: whatever modality you choose, keep those conversations going and growing. And then use your travel funds strategically to connect and strategize!

As we watch the final details of OLC Accelerate 2018 unfold, we’re moved to encourage you to participate, and want you to know that your contribution will shape the overall conference narrative in ways you can’t imagine. Since our run on the Ops committee of OLC Innovate 2018, we’ve heard from a lot of you who attended; seeking feedback, looking for ways to connect, wondering how to get involved. In addition to employing the strategies above, we invite you to connect with us.  Seek us out at OLC Accelerate and talk to us about the work you are doing and the people that you’re collaborating with – we’ll be sure to amplify your efforts across our network. Unsure of how to kick off the conversation? We’re super friendly, but our favorite icebreaker of late has been “Where do I know you from? I feel like you were last wearing very different clothing…”

Camp counselor gear aside, you’ll be able to find us in the Speed Networking Lounge during a networking break, at the Field Guide Kickoff, or at the Women in Digital Learning Leadership Lunch.  We’re also presenting on our work that we’re currently doing, including on establishing students as epic heroes in online courses in a Tuesday pre-conference workshop.  Additionally, learn more about our efforts to connect people within and beyond conferences in networked practice on our website Squad Goals Network.  We created a framework that maps how to move from your conference connections to collaborations outside of the conference and then BACK to the conference to share your work.  It’s a model that has been essential to our work, our professional development, and our overall well-being (*signing* We get by with a little help from our friends!) And we felt compelled to share this framework with our colleagues as an OLC Effective Practice that you can use and share with your network.

All in all, we’d love to carve out new ways to collaborate.  Please find us! Talk to us! Connect with us! Introverts or no, we’re proud to extend ourselves for the greater good of connecting as many stars in the constellation as we can.  It’s in this work that all can see that we’re better and brighter together.


Angela Gunder (Director of Instructional Design and Curriculum Development, The University of Arizona) and Jessica Knott (Learning Design Manager, Michigan State University) are the OLC Accelerate Enthusiasm Co-Chairs, leading the Speed Networking Lounge and helping to organize the Women in Digital Learning Leadership initiatives.  They were the OLC Innovate 2018 Conference Co-Chairs, and frequent OLC co-conspirators on such initiatives as the Technology Test Kitchen, Innovation Lab, and the OLC Institute.  You can find them on Twitter (@angelagunder or @jlknott), on their websites (Squad Goals Network and Monomyth Online), or on their respective couches playing iPhone games and eating cold pizza.

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